As someone who’s lived in Yemen for more than two years, its hard to suppress a general sense of alarm each time the media spotlight falls on this particular corner of the Arabian Peninsula. In my work as journalist, I often feel like I’m swimming against the current with only a handful of other comrades, fighting a nearly sisyphean battle to add nuance to discussions that tend to be plagued with rather lazy stereotypes. With Yemen once again in the news due to the current “AQAP threat alert,” I figured I’d collect some of the pieces I’ve written for those seeking a deeper context into the country that–for better or for worse–is currently dominating the news cycle.
It’s fallacious–if not dangerous–to equate Yemen’s troubles with Al Qaeda. Almost every Yemeni you speak with will tell you that the nation’s Al Qaeda presence is only a result of other larger issues. Yemen remains acutely impoverished and while the country’s current post-Arab Spring “transition”–most specifically, the ongoing Conference of National Dialogue–has been hailed by some as a model, things are far more complicated. The ultimate fruits of the 2011 uprising against Ali Abdullah Saleh remain unclear; the central government continues to face the challenge of reckoning with the Houthi rebels, who have carved out a virtual state within a state in the country’s far north, and southern secessionists, who seek to restore autonomy to the formerly independent south. The country often seems as if it’s sitting on a knife’s edge; “on the brink” appears to be the favored term. Still, on occasion, there are moments where Yemen’s political divisions feel as if they’re not as fractious as they often appear to be.
Even in areas notorious for their Al Qaeda presence, residents tend to argue they have bigger things to deal with. Still, the battle against Yemen’s local extremist franchise often tend to dominate the discussion outside of Yemen, even its effects of American government’s policies that tend to do so here. At times, the resentment of these policies is palpable. But as an American who’s nearly constantly surrounded by Yemenis, I’d argue its false to say that anti-American sentiment here is rife. Few Yemenis are keen to support AQAP, which is unsurprising, as the vast majority of those killed by the group’s attacks have been Yemenis themselves.
Since current president Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi took office as part of an internationally brokered power transfer agreement aimed at ending the uprising against Saleh, there have been some tentative gains in the fight against AQAP. But even victories are not as resounding as they seem. American drone strikes may have lead to the deaths high-ranking AQAP militants like Said al-Shihri, they’re also deeply opposed by many Yemenis. There have been numerous cases of civilian casualties, in addition to strikes that seem to contradict the Obama Administration’s claims that they’re only used as a tool of last resort. In areas where the strikes are common, many locals say they’re ultimately doing more harm than good.
This shouldn’t have to be stated, but Yemen is–obviously–more than simply a “battleground in the fight against Al Qaeda.” As a young freelance journalist, I often feel particularly enslaved to the tides of media interest. But to state the obvious, I’d much rather be writing about things like Sanaa’s surprisingly vibrant art scene, the glories of Yemeni cuisine, of certain controversial cultural habits. In the end, the last thing Yemen represents for me is a refuge of bloodthirsty militants plotting to strike the US and, for that matter, I’ve long seen it as far more than just a staging point for launching my career as a journalist. Ultimately, Yemen is my second, adopted country; more than anything–as as bizarre as it may sound–Yemen is home.
“The unification of Yemen is the only positive event in modern Arab history,” the late Muammar al-Gaddafi apparently once remarked.
Two and a half decades after the merger of the former Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) and People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), (“north” and “south” Yemen, respectively), the Colonel’s words arguably come off as a tragic joke.
“ يا وحدة الشعب حلم السنين (Oh, the unity of the people, dream of the years),” reads a line from a famous Yemeni poem that was adapted into one of my favorite Yemeni songs. In 1990, the fulfillment of this collective longing for the unification of greater Yemen fueled a collective burst of celebration across the newly formed country. In light of the events that followed, its rather depressing to think back to the unfulfilled hopes of that particular moment in the recent past.
Over the past few days, the village of Jaleela, in the southern province of al-Dhale, has been the scene of a fierce violence. The facts are muddled, owing to Jaleela’s general isolation and the (unsurprisingly) differing narratives of those involved. But the basic chain of events appears more or less uncontested. A convoy of troops from the Republican Guard was met with some form of resistance from locals as it traveled through the area. Things soon escalated. Subsequent clashes proved deadly, leaving at least three–including a child–dead, and raising accusations that the military used excessive force.
Its unfortunate for a number of reasons, but sporadic violence in rural areas of Yemen often risks fading into a blur. Regardless, here–or anywhere, for that matter– clashes are almost never just “clashes;” regardless of catalyst, events cannot be divorced from the environment in which they occur. And while recent events in al-Dhale may seem minor in the grand scheme of things, the violence touches on issues that reverberate far beyond the south Yemeni countryside.
This is what it looked like when Yemenis gathered to demonstrate for political change, a better future, and the end of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 33 year rule. Week after week, the crowds stretched on in both directions. Does quite a lot to put the numbers at Thursday and Friday’s anti-film protests into perspective.
The “Shebab al-Mu’manin” (Believing Youth)–often referred to as the “Houthis” in reference to the group’s slain progenitor, Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi–are a Zaidi Shi’a insurgent group based in Yemen’s far north. While the Houthis and their supporters certainly have some legitimate grievances, their image has been colored a bit by their vitriolic–if easy to remember–slogan. Pulling from stereotypical, internationally-focused expressions of xenophobia and anti-semitism rather than vocalizing the group’s rather substantive, internally-motivated concerns, it curtly proclaims: “God is great; death to America; death to Israel; damn the Jews; Victory to Islam.”
Far from surprisingly, many Yemenis find the slogan offensive, and this distate, coupled in some quarters with Sunni chauvinism against the Shi’a insurgent group, has apparently spawned a few take-offs of the Houthi chant. Took a photo of two of them, shown above, in a protest tent in Change Square occupied mostly by members of the Islamist Islah party.
The front page of Al-Thawra, Yemen’s top state-run newspaper on Jan 25th, (coincidentally) the one year anniversary of the start of protests against Mubarak. Reads “Basindowa visits Change Square,” photo shows Mohamed Salem Basindowa, longtime opposition politician and Prime Minister since late last year and Yemeni Nobel Laureate/activist Tawakkol Karman. There have been a lot of shake-ups in state media since the signing of the GCC Deal, but it was still rather jarring to see such a headline on a what was once a staunchly pro-Saleh newspaper.
An odd footnote in this year of upheaval has been the May 2011 death of American Jazz musician/poet Gil Scott Heron, who authored “The Revolution will not be Televised,” arguably the most quoted poem ever set to bongo drums.
Unsure how the under-appreciated proto-rapper would have reacted to the ubiquity of his words throughout the various fronts of the so-called Arab Spring, but I imagine he’d be sort of cool with it.